Friday, April 28, 2006

DEATH PENALTY-CUBA: A Debate that Has (Yet) to Happen

DEATH PENALTY-CUBA: A Debate that Has (Yet) to Happen

Patricia Grogg
José F. Sánchez
Bureau Chief
La Nueva Cuba
April 28, 2006

In Cuba, the death penalty is not a focus of public debate, so the
strength of feeling for or against a moratorium on executions, or the
abolition of capital punishment, is difficult to gauge.

Opinions on whether or not the death penalty should remain part of the
Cuban criminal code range from accepting capital punishment, to
justifying it only for heinous crimes, to rejecting it absolutely.

However, the only known opinion survey, carried out three years ago by a
moderate dissident group, which put forward a charter of human rights
for public consideration, indicated widespread opposition to the death

Out of 35,209 people interviewed, only 1,842 disagreed with the text of
the proposed charter, the first article of which stated that "no Cuban
shall be sentenced to death or executed," Manuel Cuesta Morúa, one of
the promotors of the initiative, told IPS.

Out of the total number of respondents, some 1,400 believed that the
death penalty should be kept on the books, but only for exceptional
crimes, added Cuesta Morúa, spokesman for Arco Progresista (Progressive
Arc), a coalition of small groups with social democratic tendencies.

The same moderate opposition sector plans to hold a "social debate" on
capital punishment in the near future, as a step towards organising a
campaign for a legal moratorium or, indeed, abolition.

"When we conducted our first surveys, some time ago, we realised that
even human rights activists backed the death penalty. That's why we
thought it was necessary to talk about it and discuss it, first," said
Leonardo Calvo, of the Corriente Socialista Democrática ("Democratic
Socialist Current"), another dissident group.

Cuba's socialist government defends the death penalty, which has not
been implemented in the last three years, as a legal tool for defending
Cuba from outside aggression, as well as from internal action to destroy
the State, and to protect the population from the most execrable crimes.

"The possible abolition of capital punishment in Cuba would be linked to
an end to the policy of hostility, terrorism and economic, commercial
and financial warfare to which its people have been subjected for over
40 years by the United States," the Foreign Ministry said in 2004.

Many Cubans agree with this pre-eminently political justification, which
was used in April 2003 against three Cubans who hijacked a ferry
carrying dozens of passengers, in an attempt to reach the United States.
They were executed by firing squad.

The executions interrupted the de facto moratorium on capital punishment
in effect in Cuba since 2000, and drew adverse internal criticism and
international protests. "They committed a crime, but they didn't kill
anybody. Life imprisonment would have been punishment enough," remarked
a medical doctor who asked to remain anonymous.

Cuban sociologist Aurelio Alonso perceives the problem of capital
punishment from two angles: legal and ethical. "The crux of the matter
is which perspective is subordinate and which is dominant. In my view,
arguments justifying the death penalty are essentially based on legal
and political criteria," he told IPS.

But Alonso explained that from an ethical point of view, at least two
premises are indisputable. "The first is that the right to life takes
precedence over every other right, and embraces everything, even that
which goes against that right, including violent crime, death by
malnutrition, or death from curable diseases."

Such a principle is "quite contrary to any justification that can be put
forward in favour of the death penalty, whatever the enormity of the
crime committed, and however reasonable capital punishment may seem to
us from another angle," he said.

Secondly, "the death penalty simply eliminates the person to whom it is
applied, by taking his or her life, but it condemns his or her nearest
relatives to a life sentence of pain and sorrow, even though they are
innocent of the crime committed," the researcher said.

These ethical points "are even more important" than other
considerations, "such as the proven fact that capital punishment cannot
be shown to exert an exemplary effect that contributes to reducing
crime," Alonso stated.

"I think that a society that prohibits euthanasia, which is the taking
of life as an act of compassion, yet needs to kill people in the
interests of justice, has distorted values that it needs to straighten
out," concluded the sociologist.

Writer and journalist Hugo Luis Sánchez takes the side of abolitionists
of the death penalty wherever it is applied, and calls for different
measures to prevent serious crime.

"It is too harsh, whatever the crime that has been committed. Besides,
there is always a margin of error, and making a mistake in favour of a
guilty party can be remedied, but condemning an innocent person is
unforgiveable," he told IPS.

Economist Freddy Martínez, on the other hand, asks why he should concern
himself with the life of someone who has not respected the lives of
others. "People who commit barbaric acts, without scruples, should be
condemned," he said.

Psychologist Alicia Fernández takes a similar position, although she
admits that it is a "harsh and cruel" penalty. "It's necessary for the
good of society. It's a means of protecting people, and it also makes
people pay for crimes they have committed. Once a psychopath, always a
psychopath: these are not people with an illness," she stated.

Article 29 of the Cuban Criminal Code states that "the death penalty is
exceptional in character and shall only be applied by tribunals in the
most serious cases of the crimes for which it has been established."

The law further stipulates that capital punishment "cannot be imposed on
people under 20 years of age nor on women who were pregnant at the time
the crime was committed or are pregnant when the sentence is handed
down." In practice, no woman has been executed since 1959.

There is an automatic and compulsory right of appeal to the Supreme
Court. If the sentence is upheld, it must then be ratified by the
Council of State (the highest government body), which has the last word.

The dissident Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National
Reconciliation reports that there are close to 50 people who have been
handed, or may receive, the death sentence, a figure that has not been
officially confirmed.

Among them are Raúl Ernesto Cruz León and Otto René Rodríguez Llerena,
of El Salvador, who were sentenced to death for terrorism in 1998 and
whose cases are still pending appeal before the Supreme Court.

Cruz León and Rodríguez Llerena were involved in a number of bomb
attacks on tourist facilities in Cuba. Italian businessman Fabio Di
Celmo was killed in one of the incidents.

Humberto Eladio Real Suárez is another awaiting execution. He was
arrested on Oct. 15, 1994, after disembarking on the island, killing a
person and stealing his car. He was tried for acts against state
security and murder.

An Apr. 20 report by the London-based human rights organisation Amnesty
International indicated that at least 2,148 people were executed in 2005
in 22 countries, 94 percent of them in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the
United States.

The report also indicated that more than 50 percent of the world's
countries have abolished the death penalty, in their legislation or in
practice. The most recent countries to have done so were Mexico and
Liberia, in 2005.

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